The two great commandments are a summary of the whole law and the goal of our striving and growing; it is the central tenant of the gospel and the hallmark of the kingdom; it speaks to the enduring understanding of the people of God and incorporates love of neighbour and self at the heart of all things. It is indeed the love out of which all the law and the prophets flow. (Matthew22:34-46. Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 25  )
I have often thought that the two great commandments, and maybe the Lord’s prayer, could keep us busy on the spiritual journey for our whole life for there is no part of our individual or community life that is not the subject of these commandments. These are the answer to any and all quandaries that we might have. In almost any situation I can think of I might ask myself: how do I recognise God in this moment?; how do I open myself to the flow of God’s love and wisdom in this situation?; and who is my neighbour in this situation?
It is also important to note the location in the text that the two great commandments are given to us. This dialogue takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life as all the tensions and issues come together. This is Jesus’ answer to the third trick question in chapter 22. (In some ways the clustering of these questions – and then Jesus’ addition of a fourth question – might reflect the group of questions put to Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah by the Alexandrians in the Talmud) As before Jesus gives the “correct” answer – the Shema Yisrael or summary of the first commandment and then he links it to a second commandment that is like the first in its importance which in many ways summarises all the others commandments. In doing this he takes what is known and agreed upon and expands it in a way that amazes and perturbs those who hear. And if we have any doubts as to who our neighbour is Jesus has just told several parables that make it clear that our neighbours include the least and the lost. (And the inclusion of Leviticus 19 in the lectionary pairing of readings includes in verse 33 that even the aliens are to be included as neighbours.) There is no one who is not neighbour. There is no creature who is not neighbour. There is no part of the world that is not neighbourhood.
If the two great commandments cover and include everyone and everything then what is left to say or do? Only the impossible never ending call to live into the enormity and endless reach of the commandments! In a sense it is a part of the great commissioning of the disciples or a summary of the teaching of Jesus before the commissioning.
But before we disappear into the conundrum of the all consuming nature of these commandments we might reflect on the question that Jesus asks the Pharisees in response. “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” At first read this may seem a strange question and not relevant to us who can blithely say – “You are the Messiah, the only begotten son of the Living God!” But placed here the question, and its unpacking by Jesus about why it isn’t the son of David, seems to suggest that the Messiah is not the one you thought, not going to be like the mighty leader who will raise up an army and lead you to victory as did King David and as you have hoped would come again. Jesus, about to go to the cross, seems to be warning those who can hear that as Messiah he will not be calling upon armies to bring victory to him or the people of God. That the readymade hopes for easy victory and relief will not be realised. That he is about to make visible the vulnerability and the consequences of their wrong thinking and hoping. That obedience to the two great commandments will not necessarily lead to obvious worldly success and triumph. That the two great commandments are about to be brought to bear in the place of shame and pain and the victory promised is love in the place of hate, compassion and faithfulness in the place of trial and shame, and life in the place of death. The culmination of teaching about the law and the prophets is linked to the foreshadowing of the cross and Easter’s message of resurrection.
God is everywhere – even on a cross and in the grave – and our neighbour is everyone – even the aliens in our midst. There is no hiding place and no forgotten or abandoned corner of the world. But when the answer is everywhere and everyone how do we live it? When the love is God is shown to all and to be extended to everyone how do we live it? Clearly love is more than a feeling although it is most definitely that too. The ethic of love is present in the “rules” of Leviticus but so much more extensive and generous. We need to take this ethic of love and interpret it in our conflicted and confusing world.
What does Love of God look like when we live in a world with competing theologies and spiritual practices? How does Love of self manifest in a world in which some advise self indulgence and others promote self discipline? How does Love of neighbour express itself when our neighbours are at war with one another? The two great commandments are both answer and gateway through which we must pass daily. These are commandments and questions to be lived into not merely obeyed. And when we struggle with the tension of holding the two great commandments as instruction and guidance maybe the words of Karl Rahner (“Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits” Collected and edited by Michael Harter SJ, The Institute of Jesuit Sources, St Louis, 1993) may keep us company:
“Only in love can I find you, my God.
In love the gates of my soul spring open,
allowing me to breathe a new air of freedom
and forget my own petty self.
In love my whole being streams forth
out of the rigid confines of narrowness and anxious self-assertion,
which makes me a prisoner of my own poverty and emptiness.
In love all the powers of my soul flow out toward you,
wanting never more to return,
but to lose themselves completely in you,
since by your love are the inmost center of my heart,
closer to me than I am to myself.
But when I love you,
when I manage to break out of the narrow circle of self
and leave behind the restless agony of unanswered questions,
when my blinded eyes no longer look merely from afar
and from the outside upon your unapproachable brightness,
and much more when you yourself, O Incomprehensible One,
have become through love the inmost center of my life,
then I can bury myself entirely in you, O mysterious God,
and with myself all my questions.”